Ashley almost felt apprehensive about calling Caleb to ask him to dinner, but knew that if she was ever going to have him over, it needed to be now, between Christmas and New Year and before the winter semester started.
She hadn’t seen him since their date, and she was nervous about inviting him over. Every day that she spent with Paul pushed Caleb to the back of her mind. But she’d already decided that she was going to invite him to dinner, so she called him and they chose a day that he had off from rounds at the hospital.
The snow from the week prior had stopped, the sun was out, and the streets were dry. So, she wasn’t surprised that her little brother was waiting by the window to watch for his car again.
Caleb had told her on the phone to have Greg come out for a little ‘driving lesson’ before he came in for dinner. Greg was practically pacing back and forth in anticipation. He already had his shoes on and his coat in his hand when Caleb pulled up the drive.
The back door flew open and closed so fast that Ashley barely realized that Greg was gone. She went to the back door and stepped out onto the porch to wave lightly to Caleb as he walked around the car and let Greg climb in the driver’s side. He smiled up at her, then got in and started talking to her younger brother.
Ashley saw Caleb pointing out this or that gadget or button, making sure that Greg had a handle on what to do. Greg had been driving a stick shift truck and tractor since long before he’d legally had a driver’s license, so it wasn’t so much a ‘driving’ lesson as it was a ‘get acquainted with my car’ lesson. She felt that Caleb was pretty brave to let a seventeen-year-old kid get behind the wheel of his sixty thousand dollar car, but hey, it was his money, not hers.
Greg carefully shifted the car into reverse and it jerked a few times as he got used to the sensitive clutch. He turned the car around and inched down the driveway. He jerked a few more times and squealed the tires a little as he pulled out onto the road, but other than that, he seemed to do okay. Ashley shivered from the cold, and went back inside.
“Yum-my!” Sarah commented. Ashley looked up, thinking that Sarah was getting into the desert that sat on the counter, but found her sister leaning against the island and looking up at her with a grin. “That is one fine piece of craftsmanship.”
Ashley got the impression that Sarah was not referring to the Porsche. “Shut up, Sarah.”
Ashley pushed her as she walked past her into the dining room, wanting to make sure that the finishing touches were on the table settings. Everything looked just as perfect as it had the last ten times she’d walked in here, but she was still nervous. She still felt very intimidated with the fact that she lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse, granted a very nice farmhouse, and that she was inviting over a guy who was so wealthy that it hurt to think about.
She knew that the potato casserole was already in the oven, the biscuits were made, the salad was in the crisper, and the steaks were marinating, so there wasn’t much left to do except be nervous. She paced back into the kitchen, where her sister was still looking up at her with a knowing grin.
“So,” she started back in. “Has he kissed you yet?”
“No, Sarah,” she said. “Oh my gosh. We’ve been on one date.”
“Wait, don’t all those late-night Institute classes count? Huh? Huh?” Sarah had her on that one and they both knew it. Ashley’s mouth turned up into a little smile, though she tried to hide it. Sarah could probably see right through her. Ashley liked Caleb a lot more than she was letting on.
“We did sit next to each other in class.” Ashley took a deep breath and felt her eyes gloss over. “And he held my hand across the table when we were at the restaurant. And he’s very… handsome.”
Ashley couldn’t help leaning against the other side of the island and gazing out the window at the now-empty driveway where her date would be bringing back her younger brother at any time.
Her mom was upstairs putting a last minute touch up on her hair and make-up, her dad and brothers had come in from the barn and were cleaned up and watching football in the living room, so it was just Ashley and Sarah in the kitchen. And Sarah wasn’t through taunting her little sister.
“You like him,” she teased. “Don’t you?”
“Of course I like him.” Ashley turned to look at her sister. “He’s a really nice guy.”
“And he’s handsome and rich.” Sarah said it with finality, as if that was all that mattered.
“Why is everyone so caught up in the fact that he’s rich?” Ashley mumbled, looking back out at the driveway.
“Who else is caught up in that?” Sarah asked. “I don’t think Mom and Dad care one way or another. Greg’s excited about it, maybe. But the older boys couldn’t care less. They’re just glad that he’s a returned missionary so that they’ll have something to talk with him about. He’s not a farmer…”
Ashley quickly turned her head back to her sister.
“That’s it? Isn’t it?” Sarah raised her eyebrows. “This is about Paul!”
“No, it’s not about Paul,” Ashley snapped at her. “Okay, maybe a little bit. He’s not happy about all this. Especially about the fact that Caleb is wealthy. I think it makes him think that he doesn’t stand a chance…” Her voice trailed off.
“What are you going to do about this, Ashley?” Sarah asked her, more seriously than she’d asked anything else so far. She wasn’t teasing her little sister anymore. She was concerned about the mess that she’d gotten herself into.
“I don’t know, Sarah.” Ashley looked down at her hands, pulling at the jagged edges of her fingernails and wishing that she’d taken the time to clean herself up a bit. She’d have to remember to paint her nails or something before he took her to meet his parents. It would probably be awhile before that happened anyway, so she wasn’t really all that worried. “Paul’s really jealous. And I don’t blame him. He has reason to be. I really like Caleb.” Ashley’s voice was no more than a whisper. She looked back up at her sister.
“But you really like Paul too.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.
“No, Sarah. I love Paul.”
“Then why are you doing this to him?” Sarah asked. It wasn’t an accusation, it was more concern.
“Because when I’m with Caleb, I forget all about Paul.” She smiled just a little. “And when I’m with Paul, I can’t even remember Caleb’s name sometimes.”
“That’s funny.” Sarah lightened the mood a little. “I haven’t been able to forget his name since the first time he pulled in our driveway.”
“Speaking of which—” Ashley stood all the way up. “Here they come.”
She was nervous again.
“Mom!” Ashley called up the stairs. “The guys are back!”
“I’ll be down in a few minutes, Honey.” Her mom called down. “Take him in to watch football with the boys or something. Dinner will be ready in a little while.”
Ashley walked over to watch Caleb and Greg laughing as they came up to the house. They were bonding. She wasn’t sure if that was good or not. If her family didn’t approve of Caleb, it was going to make her choices a heck of a lot easier. It looked like that wasn’t going to be a problem. She smiled lightly. The boys bounded up the steps and in the door, slipping out of their coats and shoes, still laughing and joking with each other.
“Did you guys have fun?” Ashley asked them.
“Yeah, your brother’s a great driver.” Caleb smiled down at her.
“And he didn’t even crash your pretty car,” Sarah said from the other side of the kitchen where she was still leaning against the island.
Ashley noticed for the first time that her sister had taken a little extra time curling her hair that day and picking out a dark blue sweater that looked good with her eyes. She felt a twinge of jealousy and wondered if that was what Paul felt about Caleb. No, she thought. The jealousy Paul feels goes way beyond this.
“I didn’t really have the time to get to meet you the other day,” Sarah practically cooed at him, walking around the island and sticking out her arm to shake his hand. “I’m Sarah. Ashley’s older sister.”
Ashley couldn’t help notice the slight emphasis on the ‘older’ part, but Caleb didn’t seem fazed by it. He just reached out his hand and shook Sarah’s just like he would anyone else. Then he turned back to Ashley and took her hand gently.
“I hear a football game on in the other room,” he said quietly. “Let’s go see who’s winning. Not that I know much about who’s in the playoffs. I’ve been so busy up at the hospital.”
“How much longer do you have in your program, Caleb?” Sarah followed them into the living room and sat down on the arm of her father’s chair. Their dad got up and shook Caleb’s hand.
“Nice seeing you again, Caleb. How’d my son do? Any dents?”
“Nothing too drastic.” Caleb laughed lightly. “He’s a fine driver.”
Caleb sat down on a chair opposite Ashley’s dad, then turned back to Sarah.
“My classes and clinical rotations are done this spring when I graduate in May, but my residency is a five year program. So it’s still going to be awhile.”
“Caleb,” Ashley spoke quietly. “Can I get you something to drink? It’s going to be a little while longer before dinner is ready.”
“I think you promised me a glass of milk, if I remember correctly.” He looked up at her with a grin and winked. She smiled lightly and walked out of the room, dragging her sister by the arm as she left.
“What are you doing?” Ashley asked in a loud whisper. “You… are flirting with my date!”
“Look who’s jealous now.” Sarah laughed at her. “You’d better get him a nice cold glass of milk before he dies of thirst.”
With that, Sarah skipped up the steps, laughing lightly at her sister. Ashley watched her leave, then turned back to the refrigerator. She carried a tall glass of milk back in and handed it to Caleb. Then she found a chair next to him and settled in to watch a little football, which she had grown to really like.
“Mmm, this really is good,” Caleb spoke quietly to her, setting the glass down on the end table and smiling at her. “Your dad tells me that MSU is going to the Rose Bowl. That’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Our rival. U of M didn’t even make it into the playoffs.”
She was reminded of a conversation from last summer where Paul had chided her that MSU had a better team than U of M. I guess he was right, she thought. She needed to stop thinking about Paul and focus on the man who was sitting beside her.
“Did you ever play? Like in high school or anything?” She doubted it. He didn’t look like the type. He was tall, and strong, but not built like a linebacker or anything.
“Oh, yeah, I almost went pro.” His smile and half laugh made her realize that he was completely joking. “Homeschooled, remember?” he whispered.
That caught Donnie’s attention from across the room. “You got to be homeschooled? Lucky! I had to sit through four boring years of English and Math. Like I’m going to need that working on the farm,” he mumbled at the end.
“How come you didn’t homeschool us, Mom?” Steve looked up at their mom. Ashley hadn’t realized that she’d walked in the room.
“Because I’m not smart enough,” she teased her son. “Nor do I have the patience to deal with your mouth.” She gave him a little shove.
“I don’t believe that for a second, Sister Hardman,” Caleb responded, obviously complimenting her. “You couldn’t have turned out such nice children if you weren’t pretty amazing yourself. Besides—” he looked back over at the boys. “My mom’s not actually that smart. She just knows where to purchase the good workbooks and computer programs.” They laughed lightly, looking back at the game.
“So, you studied in Europe? Is that correct?” Deanna asked Caleb.
“Back and forth,” he replied. “We lived in Atlanta mostly, though.”
“What brought you to Michigan?” Donnie asked.
“My dad retired, and they bought a place close to my mom’s parents. She wanted us to get to know our grandma before she gets too old.”
“Where’d you serve your mission?” Steve interjected.
Ashley was glad that they’d gotten past the question she was dreading might come next. The ‘what did your dad do for a living’ question. She took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh of relief. She knew it would come out sooner or later, she just hoped it would be much later.
“California, San Diego Mission,” Caleb answered, “And you?” He looked back and forth between the two older boys.
“Texas, McAllen Mission,” Steve offered.
“Kansas, Wichita Mission,” Donnie added.
“So, are you guys both in college still?” Caleb asked.
“I am,” Steve replied. “Donnie here never had much use for it.”
“What the heck do I need college for? My father has taught me everything I need to know to run this farm. And I’m darn good at it.”
Ashley noticed their dad look over at his son with pride.
“That’s cool,” Caleb said. “It doesn’t take a fancy degree to know one’s worth. There’s something to be said for hard work, determination, and skill. Steve, what’s your major?” Caleb turned back to Steve.
“Philosophy,” Steve answered with a straight face.
Caleb’s jaw dropped slightly.
“I’m kidding.” Steve reached over and pushed Caleb’s shoulder. “I’m majoring in Business Management. Nothing exciting.”
“Well, that’s really good. Businesses do need managers.” Caleb visibly relaxed.
Ashley was afraid Caleb was going to add to it that his dad ran a large company, but was relieved when he stopped and smiled up at her with a little wink.
“Well, I think dinner is about ready,” Deanna interrupted. Ashley looked at the television and noticed that it was half-time. Her mom was very good at planning these things. She’d had sons, and a husband, long enough to know what the real priorities were. “Why don’t you start the grill, Stan? And I’ll go dish out everything else.”
“Sounds good.” Dad got up from his chair. Her brothers and Caleb all got up as well, and in a show of male bonding they all went out to the back patio and stood there freezing while the steaks cooked.
“I like him,” Deanna spoke quietly to her daughter as they were gathering the food to take to the dining room. “He’s really nice.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Ashley practically sighed. She glanced out the patio door again, watching him talk and laugh with her dad and brothers.
Deanna came over and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “Open heart, open mind, right?” she whispered.
“Right.” Ashley looked over at her mom. “And no commitments… yet. To either of them.”
“How’s Paul doing with this?”
“Not great,” Ashley said. “But he knows that he doesn’t really have a choice. If he wants to continue to see me he’s going to have to accept that I’m going to see Caleb a little, too.”
“A little?” Mom looked at her with raised eyebrows.
“Caleb is going to have to be understanding as well,” Ashley replied. “Either one of them could run off screaming at any moment, and then my decision would be a lot easier! Or both could…” her voice trailed off and she turned back to look out the patio door.
“What’s meant to be, will be.” Deanna patted Ashley on the shoulder, then turned back to the food. “You have plenty of time.”
Plenty of time, Ashley thought. And two great guys waiting to see who will win out in the end. Plenty of time. Ugh. She turned back and helped her mom carry the casserole out to the dining room.